Surviving Our National Divorce
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
By Dr. Shelly Broder
It seems to me that, as a nation, we are experiencing a contentious divorce. There has been daily upheaval over Twitter and increased division among family and friends who cannot understand each other’s point of view. It’s a fractured home with an unstable parent who deals in fear and anger. Just as children need stability, security, protection and love, so does our democracy and its citizens. My experience of the past four years makes me imagine a child living in a home with chronic tension, awaiting the next bitter argument between his or her parents. The child’s needs are inevitably overshadowed.
During this frightening and tumultuous time in our country’s history, I’m reminded of a longitudinal study I read while I was studying for my master’s degree in psychology, about the effects of divorce on children by psychologist Judith Wallerstein. It was a 25-year study following 60 some children. What remained with me were the five years during and just post the parents’ divorce.
When a divorce was amicable, and when children had involved parenting from both parents in the first three years of life, generally children fared better in many areas: developmentally, socially, academically and emotionally. However, contentious divorces, and the longer the contentiousness lasted, had long-term detrimental effects on children. At the time of such a divorce, boys exhibited acute problems in their functioning. Girls, who appeared to adjust better at the time of the divorce, eventually had difficulty establishing a long-term committed relationship starting in their early 20s. Children from contentious divorces also faced emotional developmental arrests (think of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, such as overcoming feelings of inferiority in order to be productive or developing a sense of self and identity). They had ongoing problems throughout life.
This is not to say that children from amicable divorces were unaffected. They were hurt, hypervigilant of each parent and had to go through grieving, whether with help or on their own. Once they began to establish their own connections in adulthood, however, they were better able to cope and to understand the divorce and their parents from a distance. They still had long-term worries about getting divorced themselves. The fantasy that their parents would reunite was found to be common among children of divorce, no matter the reality or life stage. I compare this to the desire to return to the former stability, rather than the current tenuousness, of our democracy.
My elation that Joe Biden, and then the Georgia Democratic senatorial candidates, won, is juxtaposed with my awareness of an ongoing sense of relief since social media dropped Trump. I don’t have to listen to his latest bloviating. My daily life feels calmer without the “yelling” tweets nearly every day, like the child’s relief when the arguing has finally stopped. But the storming of the Capitol, the fracture in our democracy, is an enormous national trauma, similar to the way divorce rocks a child’s world.
I am hopeful that in the next four years and beyond, with the organized, laser-focused and calming effect of the Biden Administration, our nation will move towards a more stable and predictable daily life. Like other psychoanalysts, I believe that people who individually did not have stable early years and are unable to face, or get help facing, their own unresolved hurt and anger, will not adjust very well.
But for everyone, the trauma from the national fracture will remain.
Rochelle M. Broder, Ph.D., a native Detroiter, is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Royal Oak, Michigan. She is a high school friend of the editor, Andrea Sachs.